The Winter’s Tale – Oxford Playhouse

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Declan Donnellan

Reviewer: Katy Roberts

Cheek by Jowl’s viscerally-charged interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s strangest romances has been rewritten as the diary of a madman. Make no mistake: here, King Leontes (Orlando James) ruler of Sicilia, is presented as a bona fide psychopath, maddened by the unfounded suspicion that his wife, Hermione (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes (Edward Sayer). Leontes begins the play the model of a laid-back modern monarch, in jeans and a shirt, playfully tussling with his childhood friend, and son, Mamillius (Tom Cawte).

Very quickly, however, the mood begins to sour and something sinister in Leontes begins to emerge as his suspicions take root and he becomes utterly convinced of his wife’s unfaithfulness. In a clever piece of staging, Leontes literally becomes the director of his own self-tormenting fantasies, arranging the bodies of Hermione and Polixenes, into postures and tableaus that confirm his worst theories. It is a frenetic scene, as Leontes darts about the stage, wild-eyed, as he convinces himself of what he thinks he sees. Leontes is a strongly unlikable character in Shakespeare anyway, but here, it is taken to the absolute extreme. Throughout the play’s first half, we see Leontes strike his young son, beat his servant Camillo (David Carr), and physically kick his pregnant wife. It is awful to watch, and makes the redemption arc of the play’s final act a bitter pill to swallow; this is a despicable man, who has no redeeming qualities at all, the destruction he has wrought upon his family is too great. His scene with Paulina (Joy Richardson) and the baby Perdita, where he insists the infant – whom he believes to be the bastard child of Hermione and Polixenes – be thrown into the fire, over and over and over again, is truly horrifying. It is testament to James’ outstanding performance here then, that we, the audience, feel such visceral disgust towards Leontes.

As Hermione, Natalie Radmall-Quirke is heart-wrenching to watch; stone-faced in the wake of searing, unprecedented abuse from her husband, that not only threatens her honour, but her life. The courtroom scene, where Hermione is tried for high treason and adultery by her husband, is particularly powerful – the use of a camera at the witness stand to capture, in vivid close-up upon a great wooden box at the back of the stage, the expressions on both Leontes’ and Hermione’s faces as they take the stand – he as he accuses her, and she as she desperately attempts to defend herself – driving the intensity and desperation of the scene home hard, as the first half hurtles unflinchingly towards its terrible, inevitable conclusion. However, the penultimate scene of the first half, where Paulina berates Leontes for his actions, feels a little lacking; after the fierce intensity of the preceding scenes (particularly surrounding the death of Mamillius, shown here onstage, when often it is not), Paulina’s words felt oddly restrained.

After the strength of the first half (albeit with the odd misstep), the play’s second half, feels, quite literally, like a play of two distinct halves. The action has moved forward 16 years to the kingdom of Bohemia, where Prince Florizel (son of Polixenes, played by Sam Woolf) and Perdita (Eleanor McLoughlin), estranged daughter of Leontes and Hermione, have fallen in love, and the kingdom prepares for its annual sheep shearing festival. The thief Autolycus (Ryan Donaldson) provides some welcome light relief at the second half’s opening, but the play veers into the ridiculous when, all of a sudden, the dancing is interrupted and Autolycus is a reality show host, à la Jeremy Kyle, and it is revealed, in a strange, jarring and convoluted way, that Perdita is not, in fact, a humble shepherd’s daughter, but that of a King. Coupled with the following scene, in which Polixenes, disguised at the sheep shearing, to spy upon his son and his mystery beloved, reveals himself and, with quite unforeseen brutality, begins to beat his son, and then physically attack Perdita also. Where did this come from?! Perhaps parallels are to be drawn here between Leontes and his childhood friend here, but this just felt really uncomfortable to watch, and wholly unnecessary. It is at this point that it feels hugely unlikely that any of these factions would ever want to be near each other again, let alone all travel to Sicilia for the final scene, but travel they do, and it is here that the production goes some way to redeeming itself.

Hermione’s resurrection is one of the most famous scenes in literature, and a marvel to witness onstage, and it is rendered beautifully here, in candlelight and shadows, and the final tableau, of everyone on stage embracing, is framed beautifully, but the brutal misdeeds of the past 16 years hang heavy in the air. The Winter’s Tale is a story that reminds us that all our actions have consequences and that some of them exact a terrible price, but it feels like a suspension of disbelief too far that this would all end happily ever after, with everyone in each other’s embrace, following the horror of what has gone before.

This is an arresting production, with strong performances from its lead actors, particularly Orlando James and Natalie Radmall-Quirke, but its strong first half is let down by a muddled, inconsistent second. A real shame.

Runs until 4 March 2017 | Image: Johan Persson

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